“Hello, dear. And what’s your name?”
“Another one? Let’s see— Amasawa. And do you have your music?”
“Let’s see. Kabalevsky, huh? You don’t see that every day. And are your measures numbered?”
“And is your piece marked?”
“Very good. Let’s see, you are contestant number twenty-two, and your warm-up time is, uh, 10:35. It’s all on this slip here. You’ll have fifteen minutes in the warm-up room, and then you need to check in with the performance room attendant, okay dear? And you will need to give them your music. And here you go. Good luck, dear.”
Isako scoffs inwardly. Luck didn’t win piano competitions; that was talent and hard work. “Thank you,” she says instead.
There was over an hour before she needed to play; she might as well listen to the younger division perform. What a bother. She shouldn’t have asked to leave so early. Resigned, she slides into an empty seat close to an enthusiastic mom who is earnestly recording the entire proceedings on an iPad. Ugh.
Isako was here by herself. When her older brother had left for college, her parents decided to move for work and left Isako behind with her aunt and uncle, supposedly so she could attend the same school and the same piano studio. Today her aunt needed to run errands, so she just dropped Isako off on her own. It hardly mattered. It was just a small competition. There were three age divisions and modest cash prizes for the winners. This year, the competition was being held at a public library in its tiny auditorium.
“This is contestant number sixteen,” a lady with a clipboard intones.
A little girl in a glittery pink dress and shiny black Mary Jane’s marches up to the stage and bows sharply at a perfect right angle. Two of the most ridiculous pigtails Isako has ever seen stick up into the air. She crookedly adjusts the bench and plops down, mouth set in a tiny frown.
The program informs her that she’s playing Chopin Waltz in B minor, opus 70. What a stereotypical competition piece. Isako must have heard it played poorly thousands of times. Sure enough, as pigtail girl begins, it becomes obvious that she intends to proceed through the entire piece just enough below tempo for it to feel plodding. Great.
She supposes this girl is amusing to watch, at least. Her needlessly horizontal pigtails bob with the beat as she nods slightly to keep her rhythm. Her wrist movements are unnecessarily exaggerated. She glares at the keys as if they might run away from her if she doesn’t keep watch. She hunches over the during difficult passages and leans severely to reach the notes near the ends of the keyboard. It looks like hard work, honestly.
Isako smirks as pigtail girl wobbles on the bench. It really was adjusted badly, one side slanting closer to the piano than the other. She leans further as a passage travels up the keyboard. Her tongue is almost poking out in concentration. She wobbles a bit more, reaches for a high note— and falls straight off the bench, landing on her butt with a weak thump.
Absolute silence. Isako realizes that she is almost half out of her seat. The little girl’s head whips towards the audience, jaw slack and eyes stunned. The judges sit frozen, one with pen poised, one with hand outstretched to turn the page, one with mouth hanging open, glasses slipping down his nose. She slowly rights herself, gives a tiny bow, and walks off the stage, hands clasped tightly in front of her. A few scattered claps peter out quickly. Isako hears the doors close.
Titters and murmurs sweep the audience as the judges hesitantly write their comments. Jeez, that must have been the most embarrassing way to mess up a performance that she had ever seen. Isako could only think of a couple things worse than falling off the bench in the middle of playing.
She tries her best to tune out the next piece, a painful rendition of Fur Elise played by a timid boy who takes way too many liberties with rhythm. Seriously, was he trying to play Beethoven or some weird jazz arrangement? Isako promptly exits the room afterwards. Going to the bathroom seemed preferable to suffering through something similarly unpleasant.
A little ways down the hall, she pauses when she’s greeted by the sight of pigtail girl sitting on a chair. She’s bawling as a brown-haired girl Isako’s age crouches and tries to console her, probably an older sister. It was quite loud. Isako was surprised she hadn’t heard it in the room. The crying had obviously been going on for a while. The younger girl’s face is wet, and the front of her pink dress is now damp. Her nose is running, too. Isako stops and watches.
“Excuse me, but do you have some tissues or something?” The older sister could only be addressing Isako. The girl’s eyes are large and round behind her glasses.
Well, Isako did have something. Before her first competition, her brother had given her a handkerchief when she was feeling nervous. It was to keep her hands from getting sweaty, and she took it with her to every performance.
“Um, here.” She hands over the handkerchief. What was wrong with her? She usually never did stuff like that. Why hadn’t she just ignored this girl?
“There’s always next time, alright?” The older sister continues to soothe while dabbing away most of the tears. She might need to wring out the cloth at this rate. “Plus, everybody makes performance mistakes. Remember that time when I sneezed all over the keyboard in the middle of a recital?”
Yeah, but that was a recital, not a competition, and you didn’t fall on your ass, Isako thinks. Pigtail girl seems similarly unconvinced and continues to cry. The older sister looks up and notices Isako staring.
“Um.” Suddenly embarrassed for some reason, Isako turns on her heel and walks straight back into the performance room. What the fuck, Amasawa? Isako berates herself internally. Get your shit together. You have to perform soon. She hadn’t even gone to the bathroom like she’d planned. And that girl still had her handkerchief. Damn.
Isako listens impatiently to the last of the junior division. The judges take a short break, and then comes the middle division, opening with a mostly respectable but unremarkable performance of a Rachmaninoff Etude Tableaux. She glances at the clock. 10:30. Time to get going.
In the warm-up room, Isako plays a few scales before running through a few sections of her piece. Her arpeggios are sloppier than usual. She forces herself to calm down. It’s just a small local competition. It doesn’t mean anything. Too easy. Her brother had won it a dozen times, or he would have, if the rules didn’t limit participants to two wins per age group. Isako rubs her palms down the black skirt of her dress. She had to win. She carefully ran through the section more slowly. Her fifteen minutes were up. Time to go.
“This is contestant number twenty-two.”
Isako stands and walks onto the stage. Turn, bow. Adjust the bench. Sit. Hands in your lap, eyes down. Breathe in, breathe out. Think of the tempo. Head up, hands on the keyboard. Begin.
Kabalevsky Sonata in F major, opus 46, third movement. Isako thinks the piece suits her. It seems polite enough at first but turns out to have a whole lot of angst. Adrenaline makes her hands tremor and her tempo edge up slightly. Fine. She can do this anyway. Her confidence builds as she continues through the piece. The keys feel good under her fingers. She feels strong, and a little bit giddy. It’s good. This is good. She smiles to herself and lets the task absorb her. The difficult sections pass without a hitch. She ends the piece with a flourish. Let up the pedal gradually. Stand. Bow. Applause. She did it.
Back in her seat, Isako lets the adrenaline seep out of her. That went well. She thinks over her performance as someone else plays. She had let her nerves get to her a bit and had made a few finger slips, but overall, she is pleased.
“This is contestant number twenty-four.”
Isako blinks. It’s the girl from before, the older sister with those round glasses. Isako looks down at the program. Sonata in A major D664, first movement, by Schubert? Who plays Schubert for a competition? It was a guaranteed loss, not showy enough. Too slow. Not brilliant. Isako frowns.
Glasses girl tucks her hair behind her ear and begins to play. Her sound is sweet and sure from the very beginning. She plays well. Everything she does is carefully precise. It’s nice. Her arms move deliberately. She sways subtly during the lyrical sections. Isako feels herself relaxing. At the end of the piece, she lifts her wrists delicately, stands, and gives a shy bow. Isako claps. Her dress suits her, Isako thinks. Sky blue with capped sleeves and a pleated skirt, it fits with Isako’s impression of her. Too bad she played Schubert, or Isako would have had some serious competition.
The rest of the division plays without incident. Isako isn’t too worried about securing her win, unless the judges are especially eccentric. She doesn’t particularly want to stay for the senior division, and her aunt agreed to pick her up around this time anyway. As she stands waiting in the lobby, a hand taps lightly on her shoulder. It’s the Schubert girl again. Oh yeah! She has my—
“Thank you for letting me use this earlier,” she says and hands back the handkerchief. She’s smiling.
“No problem,” Isako returns. She is glad to have it back, even if it’s dirtier now.
“I liked your performance a lot. You don’t hear Kabalevsky played that often.”
“Yeah.” Isako lets the silence stretch.
“My name is Okonogi Yuko by the way, but my friends all call me Yasako.” Yasako looks at her expectantly.
Isako hesitates. “I’m Isako,” she finally says. “Nice to meet you.” The other girl beams. It probably wouldn’t hurt to talk a little bit more. “Is this your first time at this competition?” Isako knows it is.
“Yeah. Well actually, I don’t even have a teacher right now.” Yasako scratches her cheek. “My family moved here a little while ago, and I still need to find a studio. I just had the Schubert ready, so I figured that I might as well.”
“Oh.” Isako can see her aunt through the glass doors, her car idling at the curb. “I have to go.”
“Oh. Well, I’ll see you around!”
“Sure.” Yasako beams again as Isako leaves to climb into her aunt’s grey Camry. Her music bag flops against her knees as she pulls the door closed.
“So, how did it go? Did you have fun?” Aunt was trying to make conversation again.
“It was fine,” Isako says.
“That’s good. Make any new friends?”
“Too bad. Did you hear anyone worth listening to?”
“Yeah.” She fingers the handkerchief in her lap absently. It would probably need washed when she got home. It was probably covered with that pigtail girl’s tears and snot. Yasako’s sister.
“Well that’s great.” Her aunt continues, “I think it’s wonderful that you’re so dedicated. Your parents must be very proud to have such a hard-working daughter.”
Hardly. Isako turns to look out the window, and the rest of the ride passes quickly in silence.
Yasako watches as Isako climbs into a car with a sweet-looking woman and rides off. She really, really wants to be her friend. Really bad. She doesn’t even know why. Isako’s performance had been captivating, but that didn’t explain the intensity of this feeling. She remembers feeling like this once before.
It had been at the beginning of second grade. There was this girl named Mayumi in her new class, and Yasako had immediately been enamored with her. Mayumi already had a best friend that she spent all her time with, and Yasako had been unreasonably jealous of him. She remembers crouching behind a bush and crying over it during recess one day. A teacher had found her huddled there, sniffling, and kindly asked her what was wrong. “I just want to be her friend!” Yasako had blubbered. The memory makes her cheeks flush. She thinks she might want to be friends with Isako even more than she had wanted to be friends with Mayumi.
She sees Kyoko leaping from bench to bench in the corner of her eye, very much recovered from her earlier distress. “Poop!” she exclaims, pointing dramatically at some poor woman’s purse. As said woman clutches her bag to her chest in offence, Yasako hurries to intervene.
A lot of this fic is inspired by my own experiences. I've actually fallen off the bench once while playing, but thankfully it was only in front of my teacher. Still pretty embarrassing, though.
Chapter 2: Jardins sous la Pluie (Gardens in the Rain)
Is there anything cuter than playing duets with your friends? I didn't think so.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
A clock ticks in the quiet of the studio. Isako knows instinctively that it is almost time for her lesson to be over but doesn’t dare check. She makes sure to stifle her yawn. Dr. Nakahara is strict about social niceties.
“Yes, that was much better.” Isako’s shoulders slump subtly in relief. She nods politely at her teacher’s comment. “Just be sure to continue practicing with the metronome this week. And I still think your left hand could be lighter in the passages we talked about. Well, I see that someone’s here to pick you up. I think we have to be done for the day.” Isako moves to pack up her music.
“Oh, I almost forgot!” her teacher exclaims. “I’m planning another duet recital for this year. I’d like you and some other students to play the Dolly Suite by Gabriel Faure. Have you ever heard it?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, it’s absolutely charming. Here’s a copy for you. I’ve marked the ones I’d like you to practice. I hope you have fun with it.”
“Would you like me to play primo or secondo?” Isako asks.
“Hmm. Let’s have you on primo.”
“Okay. Thank you, Dr. Nakahara. Have a nice day.”
“You’re welcome. Goodbye, Yuko.”
It’s only after she’s closed the door that she realizes that Dr. Nakahara hadn’t told her who her duet partner was going to be.
Yasako stares. Isako is her duet partner. Of course it’s Isako. Yasako hadn’t even known who Isako’s teacher was when she joined Dr. Nakahara’s studio. Well, now she knows. This must be the universe’s nice way of telling her to grow up after worrying all day about meeting someone new. She gets the message. She’s not worried anymore. She’s delighted.
“Well girls,” their teacher proclaims, “since both of you are named Yuko, I couldn’t resist assigning you two together.” Wait, Isako’s name is Yuko too? “Your strengths also complement each other’s nicely. I already have the duet bench set up, so we can get started right away.”
Their staring match is aborted as Yasako willingly takes her seat. Isako follows a beat after. Their socked feet brush briefly when Yasako remembers that she’s responsible for the pedals. She hears her old teacher’s voice in her mind: “Just like dances, duets gave young boys and girls an excuse to touch each other in a socially acceptable environment. So don’t be so stiff around your partner. You’re supposed to touch. It’s supposed to be that way.” She feels Isako’s eyes on her. Dr. Nakahara opens their music.
“Alright then. Let’s start with Dolly’s Garden, shall we?”
They make eye contact, then Isako cues her with her wrists. They begin perfectly together on the very first try. Dusk has fallen, and the only light in the room is from the lamp near the window and the desk light shining over the music stand. Its yellow glow casts their shadows onto the shelves of music behind them. Dr. Nakahara had left the window open, and Yasako thinks the piece is perfect for the warm summer evening.
The applause dies quickly in the small room. Yasako squirms slightly on the cramped couch. At least she gets a good view of both pianos from here. Plus, she was basically sitting next to Isako. Sort of. She was the one sitting closest to her, anyway.
“That was lovely, quite lovely. You have a very nice technique. Thank you for that performance. Now, let’s get to the good stuff, eh?”
The studio was cramped because Dr. Nakahara had invited a piano professor from a nearby university to give a master class. He was a tall, slender man with bright eyes and neatly slicked back salt and pepper hair. His purposeful air contrasted with his breezy manner of speaking. He seemed very kind. Yasako liked him.
Isako had just played him the piece she was working on— a Beethoven Sonata in C major. It didn’t quite match her cool demeanor. She seems to sit on the piano bench more stiffly than usual as if to compensate.
“What I want to give you is a better sense for the phrasing and direction of the melody, and I find that this goal is best achieved through lyrics. Singers understand how phrasing works because they have to breathe. Now, the piano doesn’t have to breathe, but you have to breathe. Let’s start right here at the very beginning, see? For this opening melody, I don’t want you to think about notes. Instead, I want you to sing.” He turns to look Isako straight in the eyes. “I really really want some cream cheese. I really really want some bagels,” he deadpans, then swiftly moves to the other piano to demonstrate.
He plays the first several measures while singing with energy, “I— really really want some cream cheese! I— really really want some ba-gels! I— really really want some more! I— really really want some more! I want some more right now!”
Isako looks pained. Yasako giggles. The professor looks up and catches Isako’s expression. He moves to clap her on the shoulder. “I know,” he says seriously. “Once you hear it, it can never be unheard. You’re welcome.” Yasako giggles harder. Isako glares.
The couch cushions were too warm. After suffering through scores of nonsensical lyrics which this hyper man had apparently come up with on the fly, she had finally been allowed to rejoin the audience, and Yasako had taken her place in front of the piano. Although she had staunchly refused to sing herself, it had still been Isako’s most embarrassing master class experience. Yasako’s laughter hadn’t helped matters. However, their roles were now reversed. It was time for Yasako to take her turn in the hot seat.
Except Yasako wasn’t having it nearly as bad. So far she had only been taught several useful tricks for improving her technique. Didn’t this professor believe in equal education opportunity? But karma hadn’t abandoned Isako just yet.
He regards Yasako thoughtfully and says, “I think you need some lyrics too, not necessarily to feel the phrasing, but to feel the emotion. Chopin was very emotional. You need an inspiration. You need to press the weight of your feeling deep into the keys.” Isako smirks. How the tables have turned.
“This could be a song about heartbreak. Have you ever fallen in love? What is your name? Yuko? What a lovely name. Have you ever fallen in love, Yuko? Well, perhaps you are a little young. But someday you will. Okay. Let’s say instead that someone has fallen in love with you. They might say something like this.” He clears his throat. “Yu—ko, I long for you, my— love out-pours for you!” he sings. Oh, no, Isako thinks, I was so wrong. The tables are still very against me.
“Now you try!” the professor encourages. Why.
Yasako’s eyes flick to hers. “Yu-ko, I long for you,” she warbles, “myloveoutpoursforyou.” Her cheeks are pink. Curse their shared name. This couldn’t get anymore awkward for either of them.
“Hmm. Not quite there. Let’s try that again. I’ll even sing it with you to make it feel more realistic.”
Isako really wants to leave.
“Is this Isako?”
“Yes, it's me.”
“Oh, hi Isako! It's Yasako.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Oh. Um, I was just calling about our duet.”
“So, we should probably meet up to practice before the recital.”
This conversation was taking much longer than needed. When they had exchanged cell numbers, Isako had thought it was understood that they would be contacting each other for the express purpose of arranging a practice.
“How about Friday? We can meet at my uncle's house. He has a baby grand.”
“Great! Um, I can only make it in the evening. Is 5 okay?”
“That's fine. I’ll text you my address. See you then.”
“Okay! See you! Goodbye, Isako!”
Aunt looks at her curiously after she hangs up, but Isako ignores her.
Yasako looks up from her phone nervously. Isako narrows her eyes at her in suspicion.
“Um, my mom just texted me,” Yasako offers. Isako waits. “And she’s running late. So she won’t be here for a while yet? Is that okay?”
Isako huffs. It isn’t as if anything can be done about it.
“Do you want to practice more? Or we could do something else?”
Isako considers. Honestly, practicing their duet wouldn’t make much of a difference at this point. The pieces are pretty easy, and she and Yasako sync well with each other. She wants to get outside of the house, but it’s dark and raining. On the other hand, they can’t just continue sitting next to each other in awkward silence. “We can hang out in my room, I guess.”
“Okay!” Yasako readily agrees. She smiles so easily and so frequently. Isako doesn’t really understand people like that. Why smile at every little thing? And what reason is there for her to smile now?
Halfway up the stairs, Yasako pauses. “You know, I thought it was funny,” she blurts as Isako turns to see why she isn’t following anymore. “At the master class. You played Beethoven, and I played Chopin. But it seems like it should be the other way around. It seems like you’re more suited for Romantic music while I’m more suited for Classical.”
This is true. Yasako’s playing is more calm and precise, but Isako secretly enjoys pieces with more emotion. “You’re right,” she responds and continues up the stairs.
The Dolly Suite is one of my favorite piano duets! My sister and I play it all the time.